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Play for free? Yes, if the right conditions exist.

Michelle Jones

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Published: March 6, 2015 at 4:58 PM [UTC]

As a musician, I receive requests every day to play for free for someone, some event, some charity, etc. I could play every day for an audience, if that is what I wanted to do. So how does one determine when to say, “yes” to play for free? Honestly, that decision must be left up to the performer, but I hope this article will help him/her make an educated decision.

There are thousands of charities/non-profits based in my local area, and I think I have been asked by every one of them to play for free for an event. While I do have some organizations that are close to my heart, I make my decisions each time based on a number of factors besides the emotional appeal. These questions are not just for charities, but also for any type of event where the asking party claims it is for “promotion.”

First – what’s in it for me? I know we as artists are not supposed to ask that question of a charity, but it’s the cold, hard truth that we have to pay our bills and feed our families. Are they willing to offer me signage/ad placement in the program/promotional opportunities where I can gain future work from paying clients? Are they willing to barter in exchange for something else they can offer that I may need (physical space for a student recital, video shoot, or a CD release party?) Is there a budget where the musicians can be paid, even at a discounted rate? Is it televised or recorded for additional promotional purposes that I may also use? Perhaps a mix of all of the above?

Recently, a friend shared an article with me about an independent artist (IA) upset that they were asked to play without compensation on a stage in a major festival (MF) that was being sponsored by a mega corporation (MC). *I am not using the real names, as I honestly don’t want to promote/protect/discuss the real people involved.

IA posted all over social media that the evil MC was a mega-billion dollar corporation and was asking innocent IA and other artists to play for free on a stage that they were sponsoring. This posting caught the attention of a local news channel, and they posted about it on their website. I admit that I don’t know the whole story from all sides, but it does bring to mind “all publicity is good publicity.” The relatively unknown band IA has now been featured in a larger spotlight as a victim, while taking in the opportunity to bash the evil MC.

The main question for IA is this: are they being paid to perform at this event on another stage? I understand MC did not offer money to play in their showcase on their stage. However, many artists are not paid or are paying to be there themselves so that they can participate in one of the largest music festivals in the world. I see it as MC offering their stage for free to the artists. This is not MC’s event. They are a sponsor at someone else's event, and the talent agreement may not be between MC and the artist, but rather between the festival and the artist.

I see these showcases as "job interviews." As a job applicant, I am not paid for my time to go speak with a potential employer. I am giving my time in hopes of gaining more work that is paid. When applying for colleges, the applicant even pays a FEE just for their application to be read. Some colleges charge an audition fee when you are applying for their music program. Then the applicant pays for their education. Many orchestras charge an audition fee for applicants to audition for an open position in the orchestra. This is in addition to the applicants paying to get themselves to that audition. How is this different? For festivals, the goal is to be seen, heard, and interviewed for future paid work, and to gain a fan base that will purchase tickets to future shows. We as performers should know that already. The performer must make decisions as to which "interviews" he/she wants to take and which are truly a waste of time. Many promoters attend MF as they know it is a proven, very concentrated event to interview the most candidates (bands for their venues.)

Continuing with the questions of playing for free, who is the audience? Is it an opportunity to play for a large group of promoters who buy/sell talent for venues all over the world? Is it a group of meeting or wedding planners that will recommend us to their clients for future work? Is it a group of individuals who may actually hire us for their own private events in the future? Is it a group of individuals who simply need to experience something happy in their lives to show that there is still something good in the world and to take their minds off of whatever is troubling them? Even knowing who is our audience will also determine what styles of music we should perform.

Next, am I the right fit for this event? I admit that if a client is just trying to find entertainment, I may or may not be the right fit. My styles of playing are varied, but I definitely do not claim to know everything. It’s like asking a metal band to play for a nursery of children. It’s not generally a good fit. Same thing with asking a solo violinist to play for something that requires a lot of dancing that a full band or DJ can offer. The energy is NOT the same.

Finally, what are the conditions of this event? Is it outside in the middle of summer in a hot climate with no shade or cover if it rains? Or the opposite with freezing temperatures? Is it inside, but we are buried in a corner where no one will see or hear us? Will guests likely be intoxicated and possibly spilling drinks on our instruments and equipment? Will I/our ensemble be featured or simply as background music? Is the meeting planner downright not friendly and difficult? Does the event compromise my character or moral ideals? Would I be ashamed if someone saw that I played for this event? I know musicians who do not agree with and vehemently oppose same-sex marriages, and therefore I do not ask them to play for these events. I am not ashamed to play for these events, but I respect the musicians for their opinions and willingness to stand up for their beliefs, even if it means turning down work.

I take all of these and more questions into consideration when I am asked to play for anything, but especially when asked to play for free. Yes, I absolutely love being a musician and an entertainer. I feel very blessed to be able to do what I do and make a decent living. It is my wish that my insight helps others to reach their goals, too. I invite you to read more entries at my website

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Posted on March 7, 2015 at 2:18 AM
"I know musicians who do not agree with and vehemently oppose same-sex marriages, and therefore I do not ask them to play for these events. I am not ashamed to play for these events, but I respect the musicians for their opinions and willingness to stand up for their beliefs, even if it means turning down work."

I wonder if you would feel the same if they were vehemently opposed to interracial marriages. Would you respect them for their opinions then?

From Michelle Jones
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 3:10 PM
Respecting someone for taking a stand on whatever they believe is NOT the same as agreeing with them. That's the beauty of living in America with free speech! I can be free to disagree with someone, too. And each person, including you (if and when you are in the USA), has the right to state whatever opinion s/he wants to state. With that expression, one must understand the consequences of such action, including being excluded from certain independent contractor positions (like a musician).
Posted on March 7, 2015 at 5:02 PM
“Respecting someone for taking a stand on whatever they believe is NOT the same as agreeing with them. That's the beauty of living in America with free speech!”

You said you “respect the musicians for their opinions”. Respecting the concept of free speech is not the same as respecting people’s opinions.

I’m not trying to paint you as evil. I read your bio. You do sound like a wonderful person, and I am not trying to paint myself as a saint. I used to think of myself as one. As an Indian woman married to a white man I thought I knew everything there was to know about prejudice. His family, my family, the people on the street. My bindi (the ‘red dot’ on my forehead) was like a target sign right after 911. I thought in raising my children I had passed on values of acceptance and tolerance. But sadly I learned it’s not just the hate-spewing skinheads or religious zealots that are the most dangerous. A far more insidious danger exists is how we, the supposed liberal, supportive, respond to it. As much our silence as what we say. As much the words we choose to speak of it when we do respond.

I used to have friends who disapporved of same-sex couples. I ‘compartmentalized’ this part of our life. I, as you do, ‘respected their opinions’, even though in retrospect it transgressed some of the very principles in which I believed. I respect free speech, but I also respect peoples fundamental right to equality; I believe in protecting the innocent and the marginalized. I don’t believe these concepts have to be in conflict, but quiet and acceptance in the face of acts or speech in transgression of our most fundamental principles is in itself complicity. You may disagree. As I said, I used to. But children learn from what they see. And my children learned from my silence, from my acceptance of such attitudes, from my ability to compartmentalize same-sex relationships in a way I did not do for racism, or sexism, that I somehow viewed this as somewhat less. And my son took his own life when he was 12 years old; I had no idea he was gay. I don’t believe it was all my fault. But in talking to his brother it became clear in a hundred tiny ways I had let my children down - the friends I accepted, the behaviors I tolerated, even the way I myself chose to speak about things.

We are all a little racist, sexist, homophobic, even if we ourselves are part of that ‘difference’. However, these days I think very hard about what the choices I make imply and I try very hard not to be quiet witness to inadvertent racist, or sexist, or homophobic, comments.

Intolerance will persist as long as the tolerant, tolerate it. It used to be acceptable to talk about other races, or women in denigrating ways. Over time this has become less and less acceptable and now it is largely just the fringe groups of society that do so. In my lifetime I have seen huge changes in how same-sex couples are talked of. But we’re still in that stage where somehow it’s still ‘okay’ to talk about them and act towards them in ways that if you substituted the word “women” “blacks” or “jews” you would shudder to hear the words pass your lips.. Would you comment that you are not ashamed to play at a black wedding? Would it even occur? And why not say instead you are PROUD to play at such weddings. If you choose to write, you must recognize the power of word-choice. I am not trying to attack you; I just am trying, as gently as I can, to ask you to reflect on this.

So before leaping to the old friend of intolerance – freedom of speech – or talking of America and the land of milk and honey. Let’s all just take a minute and think about how even our tiny actions, our choice of words, our choice of friends, and what they know of our opinions by our actions, impacts in tiny ways the world around us, the people around us, and often, says just as much about our own tiny areas of retained prejudice which we like to believe are not there.

Posted on March 8, 2015 at 4:10 AM
If you got the talent then why not.I regularly play(for free)anywhere anytime and anywhere.Keep the confidence going as everybody cannot do it.

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